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Government plans to scan bank accounts of disabled people will lead to another scandal

The government is sleepwalking into another scandal as it pushes plans for ‘bank scanning’ algorithms to monitor bank accounts of disabled people

It looks like we’re sleepwalking into another Horizon scandal. Disabled people up and down the country are sounding the alarm ahead, with 6.3 million of us potentially affected by the government’s latest dalliance with untested, unscrutinised, and potentially unlimited powers for new “bank scanning” algorithms, which are being proposed to tackle “fraud”. An issue that is seemingly so out of control that the fraud rate for disability benefits is only 0.2%; the government’s latest plans are essentially a digital sledgehammer to crack the tiniest nut.

The Data Protection and Information Bill, currently moving through the House of Lords, would give the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) unprecedented powers to monitor the financial activity of benefit claimants without their knowledge or consent.

While this surprise attack on financial privacy has drawn condemnation from many sectors, its effects will be felt particularly sharply by disabled people, who have long borne the brunt of the Department’s hostility. 

By ‘disabled people’, I mean those of us whose bodies and/or minds work differently to how ‘normative’ society assumes we should, and who face disabling barriers as a result. These impairments/conditions/differences include physical, mental, neurodivergence, and chronic illnesses.

Like everyone, we have different genders and sexual orientations, come from different backgrounds, live different lives but we all want access to the right support when we need it.

Some of us might even be Luddites, and not without good reason: for years, disabled people have been targeted by the Department of Work and Pensions, whose attempts at digital transformation and policy change mean that the UK already has one of Western Europe's least generous welfare systems. Between 2008 and 2019, we lost an average of £1,200 a year due to a series of cuts and reforms, including the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment, Personal Independence Payment, the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the two-child limit, and Universal Credit.

These cuts have created a system that is designed from the bottom up around fear and conditionality for those who need support. But now the DWP wants to go even further by gaining new powers to introduce “algorithms” to trawl vast troves of accounts at once. Not only would millions lose our right to privacy as a legal opinion published by Big Brother Watch has found, but the chances of false positive matches for fraud or error are incredibly high. And we’ve seen from the Horizon scandal just how costly dogmatic faith in technology can be. It will affect everyone in our wider circles too – from our landlords to any carers, who could also be caught in the wide digital net the DWP is casting.

It is extremely concerning that the new powers would also see disabled people and those around us wrongly accused, potentially having our benefits suspended, and be forced into intrusive interviews by DWP fraud investigators. Many disabled people set up bank accounts to pay for our social care, as these accounts hold money that might be misidentified as fraudulent.

The mental health impact of covert financial surveillance is not to be understated either. Many people – particularly those who are racialised, have anxiety, schizophrenia and/or paranoia-based mental distress – live with trauma related to surveillance. Shockingly just this month the United Nation’s investigators found that at least 600 deaths of disabled people were linked the DWP’s policies.

Given the DWP’s well-documented history of negligence, there is a serious risk that claims mistakenly flagged as fraudulent could trigger burdensome appeals processes and the erroneous suspension of benefits. This could easily leave people unable to eat, purchase essential medication or keep a roof over their heads

Clearly, the problems with this bill go far beyond the reach of any new technology – they stem from the core of our social security system. Instead of seeing the social security system as an essential public service – a piece of social infrastructure that ensures we all have access to the right support when we need it – the government is choosing to put us all at risk.

This should be our moment to create a system built on respect, dignity, and support that enables us to live the lives we deserve – not spending millions to create an uncontrollable digital panopticon. Legislation of this kind has no place in a society that purports to care about its members, not least its disabled ones.

Mikey Erhardt is a campaigner at Disability Rights UK

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